Spurring innovation in state government can be as easy as rolling chicken poop down a hill. That’s what prompted the state of Maryland to run its first civic hackathon, called DataBay Reclaim the Bay Innovation Challenge, on Aug. 1 through Aug. 3. With four finalists now selected, the state is looking forward to see how a community of entrepreneurs and startups can improve the environment with technology before the final application judging on Aug. 27.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley gathered his people in July to discuss the problem of chicken litter creating environmental problems in Chesapeake Bay, CIO Mike Powell told Government Technology. The hackathon wasn’t specifically launched to solve that one problem, but it was the starting point of the state’s environmentally-minded hackathon, Powell said.

About 80 local entrepreneurs, students and technology leaders gathered and scarcely slept at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater to participate in the state’s first hackathon. Since the state had never led a hackathon before, the state’s partners, which include the University of Maryland's Future of Information Alliance and Hack Baltimore, were integral to making the event a success -- and it was a success, Powell said.

“Without Hack Baltimore’s experience with hackathons, without the Future of Information Alliance’s experience with significant events, I would have personally been in a lot of trouble and it would have never been as good as it ended up being,” he said, adding that feedback from the event’s participants was positive. “I was really pleased with the products they came up with, but also [with] building a little bit of community around civic engagement and environmental issues in a new way.”

Four teams of finalists were selected at the end of the weekend-long event. Each team received $1,000 and an opportunity to continue developing their projects until the final judging on Aug. 27 at the State House in Annapolis.

The qualifying projects include:

  • EcoSleuth, a crowd-sourcing app for tracking algae blooms;
  • ChesaPeaks, a website that facilitates water-quality monitoring;
  • BayBucks, an app that rewards environmentally-friendly acts with coupons to local businesses; and
  • MyBay, a program that surveys user behavior and suggests ways of being more environmentally-friendly.

The state didn’t want to provide too much guidance, Powell said – the idea was to let smart and creative people do their thing, and the state would do their job, which was to feed the participants environmental data and watch what happened. When the state’s five appointed judges, taken from the local environmental and entrepreneurial community, make their decision later this month, the state will evaluate how the event fits into state government going forward, Powell said.

“One of the goals was if it was successful, we’d think about how to make this scalable and sustainable, and I think the feedback we got was really, really good," he said. "There’s certainly interest in doing something like this again, whether it’s around the environment or whether it’s around something else."

And the projects that came out of the event, Powell added, were just the kind of thing they were looking for. “Most of them are more consumer applications,” he said. “It’s not something that solved a problem that we in state government had. It was something that peoples’ creativity led them to develop -- something that my mom might want to use to be more environmentally responsible or help the earth.”

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.